Fri 30 Sep 2016
Filed under: Children / Youth,Gender,Human Rights,Inside Burma
When photos of the brutal scars and bent bones of two teenage maids went viral on social media earlier this month, they launched on outpouring of public criticism directed at the rights body responsible for investigating the case. Instead of immediately imprisoning the culprits behind the shocking abuse, the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission brokered a financial settlement and allegedly then washed its hands of the case, considering the complaint resolved.
But the public rage has also stirred up renewed attention on the issue of child abuse, and revealed that the horrific case was only one incident in a much larger, rather common problem, which sees children regularly exploited, trafficked and even killed.
Under scrutiny from lawmakers, activists and the government, the MNHCR has released updates on two other, similar incidents. And the spotlight has helped lawsuits long ago relegated to languish in the courts gain renewed traction.
In one instance investigated by the MNHCR, Ma Than Than Ei, a 16-year-old, escaped after two years of abuse at the hands of her adopted mother.
In April 2013, Daw Aye Aye Win told one of her struggling North Dagon neighbours that she could look after the neighbour’s daughter, and even sponsor her to be a nun. Instead, the child was put to work in Daw Aye Aye Win’s home and frequently tortured.
According to an MNHRC statement released last week, the underage maid was regularly beaten with an iron chain and a wooden paddle. Her fingernails were pulled out by pliers and her foster mother poured scalding water over her. A daughter and son-in-law allegedly helped in the abuse.
Ma Than Than Ei escaped in 2015 and with the help of a ward administrator found her family. Her aunt filed a complaint at the North Dagon Police Station on July 17, 2015, officers confirmed.
But despite the intense violence the underage maid suffered, the police proceeded through the case as if at a loss, filing charges for obscene acts, grievous hurt and assaulting a woman – and then, under the instruction of the township law office, added attempted murder.
It was only on September 22 this year that the Anti-Human Trafficking Police got involved and added two additional charges for the trafficking and enslavement of a child.
The three offenders are in Insein Prison, but more than a year after the initial charges were filed, the court has yet to announce a verdict or sentence in the case.
Prominent human rights lawyer U Robert Sann Aung said it is not unusual for cases to proceed so sluggishly.
“There are a lot of cases backpiling in the court and the judges take a long time. Some cases take one or two years to reach a final decision. Sometimes, the court cannot even start hearings because witnesses are absent,” he said.
In another case involving an eight-year-old housemaid in the home of a military lawmaker, the MNHRC said 17 hearings have been held as of September 19, with no date set for the verdict.
The young girl was repeatedly stripped naked and beaten at the Bahan township household, according to the rights commission.
The commission members could not be reached for comment on the cases, or for further details on their involvement in investigating the two complaints.
While there are no statistics on underage domestic workers employed in Myanmar, anecdotal evidence suggests the practice is common. And the scourge is hard to fight, as the abuse typically takes place in private homes behind closed doors, preying on one of the most vulnerable populations – impoverished children.
U Robert Sann Aung said that if the government wants to get serious about curtailing the abuse of child domestic workers, it needs to take aim at traffickers. Rural poverty coupled with a growing urban middle class seeking cheap household help drives the trade, which is often facilitated by brokers.
“The authorities should handle the issue by targeting local human traffickers because the children who are working as housemaids have mostly been trafficked,” he said.
He also blamed the Ministry of Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement and the Ministry of Labour for failing to protect children, and called for new legislation that will stop the abuse. There is currently no law in place to protect working children and ensure their health and safety on the job.
U Soe Aung, a spokesperson from the Ministry of Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement, denied the need for such legislation, however.
“If rules and regulations were effectively enforced in our country, it would be enough to handle child abuse cases through the Child Law and the labour laws,” he said. “I see no need to draft new legislation.”
He added that another priority should be focusing on educating homeowners on not abusing or torturing child domestic servants.
Lower house lawmaker Daw Phyu Phyu Thin (NLD; Mingalar Taung Nyunt) said the child domestic worker cases are testing the judicial system, an area her party has prioritised for reform. She also said the cases proved the need not only to urgently reform the judicial system but also to form a separate justice ministry.
Aaron Greenberg, chief of child protection at UNICEF Myanmar, said that “child protection systems” need to be a key part of the new government’s reform agenda.
“Child protection has gained momentum in Myanmar over recent years, not so much because of the number of cases of violence reported, but out of awareness that it was a glaring gap in addressing child rights in the country,” he said, adding that “the public outcry around the case of the two girls shows that the public is not willing to tolerate such abuse and sends a strong signal that people are willing to play their part in protecting every child in Myanmar”.